Cassandra Wilson is Harvard’s Jazz Master in Residence

Susan Saccoccia | 4/13/2017, 6 a.m.
Renowned vocalist Cassandra Wilson settled down with Harvard’s Ingrid Monson for a conversation on Wilson’s career and development as an ...
Cassandra Wilson Photo: Jake Belcher Photography

Wilson’s repertoire includes a version of the early blues anthem “St. James Infirmary Blues,” an old Irish song immortalized by a 1928 recording of Louis Armstrong.

The words “path” and “connection” come up often as Wilson speaks of her music. She describes a braiding of past and present into the new and intertwining of various cultures that she shares with other leading jazz musicians of her generation as well as younger artists such as pianists and composers Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer.

Diverse influences

Wilson has earned acclaim in her multiple roles as a jazz musician, vocalist, songwriter and producer. In her distinctive repertoire — reinventions of songs by others as well as her own songs — she draws from various sources, including the blues, country and folk music traditions, pop and R&B.

Formative experiences included Wilson’s time in New York City during the early ’80s, when as a founding member of the M-Base Collective, she and saxophonist Steve Coleman collaborated with other jazz musicians to incorporate funk, soul and pop grooves into rich and complex original pieces.

In 2014, Wilson discovered that her roots include Irish and Welsh threads as well as West African ancestry, and she relishes exploring an ancient Irish vocal tradition that she finds equal in gravitas and emotional power to the blues — the a cappella Sean Nós tradition. She is planning to perform in Ireland and her gig at the Irish Arts Center in New York City earned her its 2015 Spirit of Ireland Award.

Wilson’s influences remain wide-ranging, and she spoke with equal ardor of Joni Mitchell and Abbey Lincoln, each a singer and songwriter true to her own muse.

Citing Lincoln’s song “People in Me,” Wilson said, “We’re all colored. I don’t use the expression ‘white people.’ I say beige, taupe, vanilla. We’re really all of that.”

Speaking of her musical journey, Wilson said, “It’s part of healing as an African American … to learn to love all of me.”